JP Observer: Bike transport is great, but climate benefits from expansion are limited

     I’m conflicted. (Is that even allowed for a columnist?) I really like bicycles and bicyclists. I love community participation in government decision-making, including about climate change and transportation

     Nevertheless, I like science, too. I even like crunching numbers, if that helps clarify situations so we can make the best-informed decisions when timing is critical, as it is with climate change.

     When it comes to the future of the planet, determining the best and most efficient means to reach climate goals is crucial. Figuring out and comparing cost/benefit ratios of projects is important to government and all of us, when time is of the essence to ensure life on earth survives.

     Study after study shows that transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHSs) in this country. More than a quarter of climate-destroying emissions in Boston come from fossil-fueled vehicles, according to the website of the City of Boston Transportation Department’s (BTD) “Boston Bikes” program.

     So, what should the role of bicycles be in Boston, especially when it comes to combating climate change?

     “The Boston Transportation Department works to make bicycling fun, safe and convenient,” the “Boston Bikes” home page headline says.

     BTD efforts named include creating better bike lanes, continuing the very successful Blue Bikes ride share program, offering bike riding clinics for adult women who live in Boston, supporting bike parking, informing people about bicycling laws, etc.

     “Bicycling has a small impact on the environment and can help us reach our greenhouse gas reduction goals,” the site intro states under the heading “Climate Resilience.” Boosting bicycle use to the point it would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in Boston is not mentioned throughout the rest of “Boston Bikes.”

     Boston’s “Climate Action Report” mentions specific bicycling actions that could be taken a few times in its 43 pages.

     The City has the ambitious goal of increasing bicycle use in Boston four times by 2030, according to the BTD site. Boston’s climate goal is to be carbon neutral by 2050.

     Riding bicycles can be beneficial for individuals already in good physical condition. Bicycles are also much less expensive than cars to buy and use. Riders report feeling good that they are not contributing to GHG emissions and are out of doors exercising, and they should.

     Actions like expanding the bike lanes on the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, as occurred in November, have potential. MassDOT (Massachusetts Department of Transportation) eliminated two motor vehicle lanes to do it and put cones between the bike lanes and cars in a pilot program that will be evaluated throughout the winter.

     Ideally, the relatively simple adjustment will increase safety for the many bicyclists that use the bridge between Boston and Cambridge without backing up motor traffic. If it does, a more permanent, hopefully cost-conscious solution may be created by the state.

     The 2019 Household Census showed that only 2.1 percent of Boston households said they regularly traveled to work by bike, according to a WBUR report. Commuter ridership may have increased somewhat since then.

     Boston and Massachusetts are bike advocacy strongholds with quite a few people and strong organizations, including JP’s Bikes Not Bombs, the Boston Cyclists Union, the Massachusetts Cycling Coalition (MassBikes), and the LivableStreets Alliance that promote increased bike use and safety regarding two-wheeled transport here.

     Unfortunately, some serious natural and systemic limitations on biking that are mostly out of our control, prevent bicycling from expanding significantly.

     Weather: More than 50 percent of days in Boston feature some “inclement” weather for bicycling, if one defines inclement as: below 45º, above 80º, or events featuring snow, ice, or rain, as I did when I compiled data about Boston weather over a few years. Some people who are daring and well-equipped ride during bad weather. Many don’t.

     The City of Boston has done automated bicycle counts around the city—including at two locations in JP—since 2016. Weather and motor vehicle traffic are reported, as well.

     In 2020, when the City began counting quarterly, the resulting reports show many more bicycles on the road in June, when the weather was mild, than in December. (Note that, all the traffic numbers for bike transport 2020 may have been lower than usual due to covid.)

     For example, on June 9, 2020, “Centre Street north of Harris Avenue” in JP reported 435 bikes (33 during morning rush hour and 95 in the evening rush hour) representing 5.9 percent of total vehicle traffic measured there that day.

     On December 9, 2020, the total number was fewer than half of that—200 bikes total. Morning rush: 21. Evening: 40. Bikes composed 2.5 percent of all vehicles that day.

     The “Southwest Corridor Bicycle Path south of Heath Street” location showed a total of 869 bicycles on June 9. On December 9, it was down to 471. (No motor vehicles present, of course.)

     For more on the bicycle counts, see https://www.boston.gov/departments/boston-bikes/bike-data.

     Wind strength and direction, major factors in bicycling, were not taken into account by me or in the count.

     Few, if any, cities in the world with our kind of climate history have a large amount of bicycling as transport. Copenhagen, to name a popular example of a northern city with lots of bicycling, is actually quite mild.

     Health and safety: Bicycling can be great exercise. About one third of both Jamaica Plain and Boston residents is made up of people ages 20-35, who are likely to be physically fit to further benefit from bike riding. However…

     A great many Boston residents of various ages are not physically able to ride a bicycle, even if they would like to, especially not in traffic, for a long distance, or when they must reach their destination in a restricted amount of time.

     Bicycle safety is a huge concern. “Dooring” (car drivers opening their doors in front of oncoming bike riders) can cause major accidents.

     Since 2009, 105 cyclists have been killed in collisions with motor vehicles in Massachusetts, according to a  report from MassBike released recently.

     No large scientific studies I can find seem to have been done on the effects of deeply breathing automobile fumes or sometimes the polluted air itself on regular bike riders. Many say it is assumed that the health benefits of the exercise to riders outweigh any effects of breathing bad air.

     Convenience: Public bicycle transportation is a key component in many cities and towns around the world where bikes can be common mode of individual transport year-round. People who can’t physically ride a bike, have heavy shopping to do, or have children with them use pedicabs a lot there.

     We have pedicab operations, mostly geared to tourists, in central Boston but few to none in JP or other “outlying” neighborhoods of the city. Creating expanded services would have to be a giant undertaking to affect our air quality much. During winter and other inclement weather the pedicabs sometimes don’t operate, as well.

     Bicycles, especially commuters traveling on bike paths, reduce traffic congestion. They put different, though fortunately smaller, vehicles on the streets.

     Commercial vehicles: Although they are grouped with “motor vehicles” in bike transport counts and other transport considerations, they make up a great deal of urban traffic and emissions—from big delivery and construction trucks to pick-ups and SUVs used to haul tools and supplies by small contractors.

     Those vehicle owners can’t switch to bikes, though they will all probably need to undergo the massive, expensive change to electric power at some point if we are to ever become carbon neutral.

     Highways: Bicycles have little to no role when it comes to highway travel. Giving them an important place outside cities and towns would cost a fortune, and the weather, health, and convenience limitations would still exist.

     Bike traffic was down at rush hours during 2020, Boston Bikes says, “However, more people opted to ride bikes for other types of trips and just for fun.”

     After reading and thinking more about about bicycles and climate change, I’m no longer conflicted. Recreation and fitness are great reasons to ride bicycles as well as using them for individual transport. But we shouldn’t get carried away spending lots of time, energy, and money on bike infrastructure unless it is for safety. Focusing lots of time and resources on expensive efforts to increase bike use as an alternative to cars will not put a big dent in climate change here or any similar city. Too many conditions beyond our control stand in the way.

     No large scientific studies seem to have been done on the effects of deeply breathing automobile fumes or sometimes the polluted air itself on regular bike riders. Many say it is assumed that the benefits of the exercise to riders outweigh any effects of breathing bad air.

     Convenience: Public bicycle transportation is a key transportation component in many cities and towns around the world where bikes are a common mode of transit. People who can’t physically ride a bike, have heavy shopping to do, or have children with them use pedicabs and cabs a lot there.

     We have pedicab operations, mostly geared to tourists, in central Boston but few to none in JP or other “outlying” neighborhoods of Boston. Creating expanded services would have to be a giant undertaking to affect our air quality much. During winter and other inclement weather the pedicabs sometimes don’t operate, as well.

     Bicycles, especially commuters traveling on bike paths, reduce traffic congestion. They put different, though fortunately smaller, vehicles on the streets.

     Commercial vehicles: Although they are grouped with “motor vehicles” in bike transport counts and other transport considerations, they make up a great deal of urban traffic and emissions—from big delivery and construction trucks to pick-ups and SUVs used to haul tools and supplies by small contractors.

     Those vehicle owners can’t switch to bikes, though they will all probably need to undergo the massive, expensive change to electric power at some point if we are to ever become carbon neutral.

     Highways: Bicycles have little to no role when it comes to highway travel. Giving them an important place outside cities and towns would cost a fortune, and the weather, health, and convenience limitations would still exist.

     Bike traffic was down at rush hours during 2020, Boston Bikes says, “However, more people opted to ride bikes for other types of trips and just for fun.”

     After reading and thinking more about bicycle riding and climate change, I’m no longer conflicted. Recreation and fitness are great reasons to ride bicycles as well as using them for individual transport. But we shouldn’t get carried away spending lots of time, energy, and money on bike infrastructure unless it is for safety of existing riders. Focusing lots of time and resources on expensive efforts to try to increase bike use as an alternative to cars will not put a big dent in climate change here or any similar city. Too many conditions beyond anyone’s control stand in the way.

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